Pastor and Prophet: The Role of Minister and Church in These Times

This is the “Pastor Pondering” column that I wrote for the January 2017 issue of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

On Christmas Eve the Boston Globe ran a story – “Church Looks to Heal after Politics, Faith Collide” – about Plymouth Congregational Church in Framingham, Massachusetts.  On the Sunday after the presidential election, the Senior Minister, Rev. Gregory Morisse, delivered a strongly worded sermon in which he condemned the tone and content of President-elect Trump’s campaign, and called upon the congregation to stand with the downtrodden and oppressed. Morisse’s sermon brought divisions within the church to the fore, between those who felt ministered to by his sermon and those who felt like they were being wrongly judged as “deplorable” for the choice they made to vote for Donald Trump.

I read the story with great interest. I also preached a sermon on the Sunday after the election in which I named as racist, misogynist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and homophobic things that were said in the course of the campaign, and spoke of the attacks on these vulnerable groups that followed the election. Though I named Donald Trump as saying these things (he did), I was careful not to suggest that anyone who voted for him did so because they shared these particular views. Instead, I emphasized that as the church we are all called to stand with the most vulnerable members of our society and confront those forces that seek to denigrate or harm these people.

At the 10 o’clock service many in the congregation applauded this sermon. I am quite clear that this was not because it was such a fantastic sermon, but because it gave voice to what a number of people were feeling. The applause was a, “Yes, that’s what I feel too!” I was also clear that as the applause rippled through the sanctuary, there would be some who didn’t share these feelings, some who would feel judged by my words and indeed, by the applause.

Though the reaction at First was more muted than that at Plymouth Church I heard from several people who disagreed with or felt hurt by my post-election remarks. One such person sent me a thoughtful email to which I responded; this exchange ended up with affirmation of my ministry and the direction the church is going. I met with another member who felt judged, hurt and angry in response to my words. While acknowledging our differences, I sought to hear and understand her perspective, and expressed my genuine appreciation of her faithfulness. And someone else responded, not to feeling judged, but to my statement that I woke up Wednesday after the election feeling afraid, specifically for the well-being of my wife who is easily identifiable as an immigrant and my beautiful, brown-skinned daughter. This member said they were uncomfortable hearing that their pastor is afraid, that I should set an example of hope and optimism. I responded that I experience the whole range of human emotions, including anger and fear, and that I understand my role as pastor as to model an appropriate faithful response to such feelings. Similarly, a fourth member, though he agreed with my sermon’s conclusion, expressed concern that I had scared people or made people feel guilty.

Though this was the extent of the expressions of concern that were voiced in response to my sermon, I am sure these few speak for others in the congregation who have chosen to remain silent. I have also heard from many others who felt ministered to by my words.

In the weeks that have followed the presidential election I have thought a lot about my appropriate role as the Senior Minister of this church.

Ministers are sometimes said to fill roles as both pastor (caring for the flock) and prophet (speaking God’s truth even when that truth is hard to hear). I feel a very strong call to both roles. I love people. I love to hear your stories. I am curious about your interests and passions, and I care about your regrets and sorrows. I rejoice with you, and I hurt when you hurt. I want everyone at First Church to see me as their pastor, regardless of how we each understand our faith.

I also feel called to speak strongly on behalf of the most vulnerable, as I believe the meaning and demands of Jesus’ birth, teachings, persecution, murder and resurrection could not be clearer in this regard. I expect we are entering an extended period of history where the rights and well-being of people of color, the poor, women, Muslims, Jews, and gays and lesbians will be undermined and degraded and I expect to speak directly to these concerns from the pulpit.

In addition to the comments above, I have heard a few express concerns about dividing the church. The article about the Framingham church speaks to this possibility. I am sensitive to this concern though I don’t sense we are in any immediate danger of this. And I do not believe that unity can come at the expense of being faithful to the Gospel. Jesus does not call us to a warm and fuzzy, least-common-denominator faith. Rather, unity comes through the hard work of faithfully confronting the tough issues of our day together. This is what Plymouth Church is doing, and this is what we will do.

In that post-election sermon, I preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The two religious leaders that crossed the road to avoid the man beaten alongside the road may have had perfectly understandable justifications for doing so. That being said, Jesus calls each of us and the church to walk on the side of the most vulnerable in these troubled times. I recently read a blogpost by Rev. Amy Butler, the Senior Minister of Riverside Church in New York. She takes the interpretation of the Samaritan parable a step further, asking of the church, “Are we really doing our jobs if at some point we don’t also stand up and call for safer roads to keep our people from being assaulted in the first place?”

Those who attended my Installation Service in April will remember that our preacher, my colleague Rev. Da Vita McCallister, proposed that God is “stirring up the waters” at First Church and encouraged us to “wade in the water” together. We all laughed in recognition when she suggested that we are more comfortable sitting in our beach chair right at the water’s edge, just sticking our toe in the water, rather than wading on in to those stirred-up, troubled waters. Well, this is what Rev. McCallister was calling us to. This is our time to hold hands, confront our fear together, and walk together into the waters that roil around us.

Rev. Butler concludes her blogpost with these words:

The day after the election I was sitting in my colleague Michael’s office, wondering aloud what the results of the election meant for our work as the church. He said something I will never forget. He said: “You know, we’ve been working together here for two years, giving everything we have to help this church get healthy. All this time we thought we were working so hard to insure the health of the institution — both this one and the Church with a big “C.” But maybe that’s not what we’ve been working for after all. Maybe this election has created a moment in which we will have to decide whether we really believe what we say we believe as Christians. Maybe this is the moment we’ve been working for our whole lives.”

Maybe, indeed.

Before concluding that post-election service with the Benediction, I reminded the congregation that my words are meant as a touchstone in an ongoing conversation among us, not a last word but an encouragement for us to engage the conversation together. I look forward to hearing from you and getting our feet wet as we wade into this new year together.

In Christ,

Pastor George

 

 

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Go and Do the Same: Take Care

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on November 13, 2016, the Sunday after Donald Trump was elected as President.

Luke 10:25-37

This is the second Sunday of three during which we are focusing on stewardship themes, giving to and caring for the church. I have shared that I intend to refer to the parable of the Good Samaritan each of these three Sundays, each time making an observation about giving to the church. I thought this Sunday was going to be a cinch, I already had the sermon outlined in my head.

Then the election happened. Of course I knew the election was going to happen, but I didn’t anticipate that this was going to be sermon worthy. For reasons I will soon speak to, I concluded that I must say something in response to the election and its aftermath, as difficult as that might be.

With any significant sermon challenge it always pays to spend some time with the Bible text first. Some of these most loved parables are so familiar that it is sometimes hard to imagine there is more to learn from them. But I am always amazed that such stories continue to reveal layer after layer of new insight.

So, this is the most common interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable. Two hypocritical, cold-hearted religious leaders cross the street so they don’t have to help a man who has been beaten up and left for dead next to the road. Along comes a Samaritan, one who was looked down upon by society because of his religion and ethnicity, and he stops to help the man. The religious leaders are the obvious villains in the story, the Samaritan the unlikely hero. The moral is, don’t be a villain; be a hero.

I expect, however, that if this was a true story the situation would have been much more nuanced than a contrast between two evil people and one good one. If this was a true story, the priest and the Levite would have truly believed that they had very good reasons to avoid the man alongside the road. In fact, they may have had truly good and important reasons to cross the street. The priest may have been afraid. There had been reports that robbers were setting traps for passersby. One would pretend to be injured; then, when someone stopped to help others would emerge from hiding to beat and rob the kindhearted stranger. Maybe the Levite had an urgent matter to attend to. He had received a message that his child was sick and near death, and all he could think about was getting home to be by her side. It broke his heart to pass by the man beside the road, but he had to put his daughter first. Maybe neither of these two men was the uncaring beast that history portrays them to be.

I know this isn’t the way Jesus tells the story, but isn’t this more like real life? Life often seems complicated, more gray than black and white, filled with tough moral dilemmas.

So, let’s tuck that away as we reflect together on the election.

Our President elect, Donald Trump said and did some terrible, truly offensive things in the course of the election. He ridiculed a reporter with disabilities. He belittled a war hero. He cast Muslims as terrorists and Mexicans as rapists. He spoke of forcibly grabbing women by the genitals. He promised to revoke rights for gays and lesbians. This is all part of the much publicized public record.

Like the priest and the Levite in the Samaritan story (as I recast it), Trump voters, and I know there are some here this morning, are sure they made the best choice, and in fact likely had thoughtful reasons to make that choice. One thing I hear is that people looked past Trump’s vile behavior because they believe the policies he promotes are necessary for our country, that he can best keep us safe, that he will lower taxes and return manufacturing jobs, and that he will better respond to illegal immigration. Others had such strong negative feelings toward Hilary Clinton that they could not bring themselves to vote for her.

It is not important whether I agree with these positions or not, my point is that many who voted for Trump are sincere in their belief about what is best for our country. I can’t imagine that good and faithful people in this church voted for Trump because of the racist, sexist, xenophobic and offensive things he said, but voted for him in spite of these things.

I saw a helpful metaphor a few days ago. Does everyone know what HBO and Cinemax are? These are two cable TV channels that you have to pay extra for. So imagine that you call the cable company because you want to order HBO and only HBO. You like particular shows on HBO and want to watch these shows, nothing else. But the representative on the other end of the line informs you that the only way to get HBO is to order a package that also includes Cinemax. You keep insisting that you don’t want Cinemax, please give me only HBO you plead, back and forth you go. Finally, exasperated you realize that the only way are going to get HBO is to get the package that includes Cinemax, even though you are sure you will never ever watch it.

I think this metaphor captures something about the package we have gotten with Trump. Accepting that many who voted for him were not voting for the racist, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobic things he said, now all of us, whether we voted for  him or not, have the whole package.

None of this is meant to point a finger of blame at anyone. I don’t think that is helpful. But we all now have Cinemax even though none of us really wanted it.

Some Trump supporters accuse Hillary voters of being sore losers. Get over it, get behind the President. If this was just about policy disagreements that is a fair statement. We don’t all get what we want in any election.

But what I am hearing most from those who voted for Hillary is fear. Gays and lesbians are afraid. African Americans are afraid. Immigrants and Muslims are afraid. Women and fathers of daughters are afraid.

That fear may be partly about Trump’s anticipated policies, but more immediately we are afraid what racist, homophobic, misogynist actions people will be emboldened to take because of what they heard our President elect say.

There has already been a spike in vandalism, bullying and violence toward women, Muslims, immigrants, African-Americans and Hispanics, and gays and lesbians since the election. Richard Cohen, President of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama told USA Today yesterday, “Since the election, we’ve seen a big uptick in incidents of vandalism, threats, and intimidation spurred by the rhetoric surrounding Mr. Trump’s election. The white supremacists out there are celebrating his victory and many are feeling their oats.”

This isn’t just something I read. You all know that my gorgeous and talented wife Lourdes was born in the Philippines and speaks accented English. She is easily identifiable as an immigrant. My gorgeous and talented, 13 year-old daughter Abby is of Pacific Islander ancestry and has beautiful brown skin. I can tell you, I woke up Wednesday morning afraid, worried for their safety.

Beyond a fear of physical violence is the emotional toll of feeling like your life matters less. Over 60 million people voted for the man who said these horrible things. For many who are members of one of these denigrated populations this knowledge feels like an invalidation of one’s identity and very existence. It feels like voters put other things before the dignity, worth, well-being and safety of these people, and they did.

This is not a rant. So please don’t hear or dismiss it as me railing against Trump. This is where I am going.

We, as a church, regardless of who we voted for as individuals, are called by faith to stay on the same side of the road with and render aid to the most vulnerable people in our society. We are called to be the Samaritan in this time, to act to preserve the safety and well-being of gays and lesbians, people of color, women and girls, Muslims and immigrants, and people with disabilities. Now more than ever, First Church must be this safe place and work to make our community and our country this safe place.

None of us are simplistic villains or heroes. We all have limitations, yet we all try to do the best we can with what we’ve been given. But whether we voted for Trump or Hillary, this is how we are now called by God to come together as the body of Christ.

Yes, like the priest and the Levite, we may be afraid, we may have other genuinely important things to give our attention to. But as revealed in the Good Samaritan story, we are above all called to be neighbors to the vulnerable and injured. This is our mission. This is our call.

And a stewardship message follows from this perspective. Last week, I observed that the Samaritan was moved by compassion to respond to the beaten man’s immediate needs. This week, I draw our attention to the Samaritan’s decision to carry the man on his pack animal to an inn and pay the innkeeper for a room, so that the man might more fully recover.

We might equate responding from compassion to meet immediate needs to putting something in the offering plate in response to a story that touched our heart in the sermon.

But the Samaritan’s decision to put the man up in an inn required careful fore thought. Here he makes a longer term commitment. He would have asked, how much money do I have? What other demands are there on my finances? What do I hope will be accomplished through this commitment I am making? These are the same kinds of questions we should be asking when making a pledge to First Church. Yes we should be moved by compassion. And we should also give prayerful forethought to our decision.

This year our stewardship committee has set two goals. Increase participation. We are asking all members and friends of the church to do more than put something in the plate on Sunday morning, but make an annual pledge to the church. A pledge demonstrates the extra level of commitment shown by the Samaritan.

The second goal is to increase the total amount pledged by 10%. This will allow the church to expand our ministry and mission, whether in pastoral care, women’s and youth ministry, or outreach. Like the Samaritan, please give careful thought to how much you are able to commit to the church.

This road to Jericho is dangerous. Together we are the Samaritan walking on the side of the vulnerable and injured. Together we are the body of Christ. Together we will find the courage and make the commitment to respond.

 

The Politics of Jesus IV: Faith and State

This is the last in a four-part sermon series, The Politics of Jesus, that I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 30, 2016.

Mark 11:15-19

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Last November, Saturday Night Live produced a short comedy video of a family gathered around the table for Thanksgiving.

The father, at the head of the table, begins the meal by saying, “Happy Thanksgiving everyone! To which everyone around the table responds with big smiles, “Happy Thanksgiving!”

The father continues, “I am so thankful that all of you are hear today.” The mom in turn says, “I am so thankful that I only burned the turkey a little bit.” Everyone laughs.

An aunt says, “You know what I am thankful for, that our governor is not going to let those refugees in here.” A cousin across the trouble looks horrified, and responds, “Oh my God.”

Words appear on the screen that say, “Thanksgiving with family can be hard.”

The conversation continues, the father saying, “You know, I heard the refugees are all ISIS in disguise.” The aunt jumps in again, “That’s true, I saw a ISIS at the A&P today when I was picking up the yams.” Disgusted by the direction the conversation is taking, the aforementioned cousin raises her voice in response, “No you didn’t, Aunt Cathy that was an Asian woman.”

Again words on the screen, “Everyone has different opinions and beliefs.

The dinner table conversation devolves further when “Aunt Cathy” asks the cousin’s black boyfriend why his “friends” keep antagonizing the police?

By now the table is erupting in angry exchanges, and the words on the screen read, “But there’s one thing that unites us all…”

A little girl leaves the table, walks across the room and turns on a CD player, and we hear the opening bars of Adele’s song, “Hello.” The table quiets immediately, and Aunt Cathy lip synchs, “Hello, it’s me…”

Everyone around the table stops fighting and joins in,

“I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet

To go over everything

They say that time’s supposed to heal ya

But…”

The doorbell rings, the music stops, grandparents arrive, and everyone resumes arguing in response to the grandmother’s comment that she saw “two transgenders at the airport.”

The little girl rolls her eyes, and again pushes play.

Again the table responds together with an even more impassioned lip synch performance of the Adele song.

One more time, fighting erupts, only to be reconciled again by Adele’s music.

Finally, all rancor overcome, the mom invites the smiling family, “Dig in everyone,” and the little girl turns to the camera and says, “Thanks Adele.”

SNL effectively drew upon the ubiquitous popularity of Adele’s hit a year ago to help us laugh at what are equally ubiquitous and painful experiences of division over politics.

That was a year ago and today we are even more painfully divided around the table and across the country. It will take more than Adele and a laugh to bring us together.

This is the fourth and final in the Politics of Jesus sermon series. Let me review the path we have trod together.

The first week I asked, “Was Jesus political, and if so in what way?”

I began with this definition, that to be political is to engage a process to order collective lives for the public good. I concluded that by this definition, Jesus was political. Just as Moses confronted Pharaoh to demand freedom for enslaved Israelites, so Jesus was confronting a “domination system” comprised of political, religious and economic elites who sought to preserve their wealth and power at the expense of others. By claiming the authority of God to stand with those who had been pushed to the margins, Jesus confronted powerful religious and political leaders and challenged the domination system. This was political, and this got him crucified.

The second week I took a look at “The Issues,” going through the gospel of Luke to ask who and what is being talked about there. I concluded that the stories of Jesus’ life and the stories he told inform our perspective on any number of issues that are prominent in this year’s presidential campaign. Respect for women’s leadership, responding to poverty, recognizing the morality and value of those from other faiths and nations, treating the mentally ill and integrating them back into the community, healthcare for the most vulnerable, specifically women’s health, and confronting prejudice toward minority ethnic groups.

While the stories in the gospels are far from a prescription for public policy, they can, and I believe should be read as a prioritizing by Jesus of who and what is important in the realm of God.

Then, last week Rev Kev delivered a much needed message of hope, reminding us that Jesus walks with us through all our discouragement and despair.

The title of this week’s sermon is Faith and State. Accepting that Jesus is political and, and that Jesus does prioritize certain issues over others, what does this require of us as his followers?

First, many Christians are quick to respond to political questions by invoking “the separation between church and state.” Just to be clear, this is part of the First Amendment of the Constitution, not the Bible. And these words are not meant to prohibit religious people from bringing their faith into politics, rather they emphasizes that the government cannot promote or prohibit religion. So we, as Christians, can and should apply our values in the political realm. We can and should reflect prayerfully on Jesus’ teachings, his priorities, when we vote and otherwise participate in the public sphere.

But that’s not all. The politics of Jesus leads us far beyond a vote in an election.

Again, I proposed that Jesus confronts a “domination system” comprised of political, religious and economic elites who sought to preserve their wealth and power at the expense of others. This confrontation climaxes when Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers in the temple.

I would suggest that a similar domination system comprised of political and economic elite continues to act to preserve wealth and power in the hands of a few today. Further, both major parties and their candidates represent these same powerful interests and perpetuate this unequal and unjust system. In fact, I would suggest that the entire electoral system and system of governance as it is currently structured and practiced preserves and maintains this unequal system.

So, if Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers then, who confronts these interests today?

Says the Apostle Paul, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” This is the way the Apostle Paul refers to the church. Notice he doesn’t say the church is like the body of Christ, or could be the body of Christ, if only we behaved differently or better. He says you are the body of Christ. So, who is confronting entrenched political and economic, and yes, religious interests today? That would be, should be, us, the church.

I recognize that this is daunting, especially imagining ourselves literally overturning tables. I can imagine the response should I invite everyone to meet at the Capitol in Hartford to overturn some tables. “Thank you, but I’m not really dressed for that.” “My son has a soccer game.” “I have to do laundry.”

But Jesus didn’t only confront the powerful through acts of civil disobedience, he did it by forming a particular kind of community that modeled an alternative way of being, by modeling the kingdom of God. As noted by Paul in his description of the body of Christ, this community required many and diverse members to function.

Over the years I have been fascinated by what are sometimes called intentional communities, Christian communities that seek to model the body of Christ, intentionally bringing diverse people under one roof to live, work, and worship together.

One powerful example of such communities are the L’Arche communities that provide homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers; create inclusive communities of faith and friendship; and transform society through relationships that cross social boundaries. The first such community was founded by Jean Vanier in France in 1964, and there are now almost twenty in the United States including ones in Boston and on Long Island.

Another example, years ago I spent several days in an intentional Christian community called the Open Door in Atlanta, Georgia. Middle class Christians live together with the formerly homeless and incarcerated, worshiping and sharing communion, providing breakfast to day laborers, and fighting for fair housing practices in the Atlanta area. The commitment these folks showed to loving in each other and working for God together across profound differences made a lasting impact on my faith.

Communities like L’Arche and Open Door represent a certain ideal of discipleship for me, both confronting a system that excludes and oppresses while modeling an alternative. But I have never found my way to committing to such a life.

But as I pondered our role as the body of Christ here at First Church in Simsbury it occurred to me that we have a unique and invaluable opportunity to seek reconciliation, confronting a domination system that seeks to divide and exclude, while modeling an alternative.

I don’t really know how our congregation breaks down along liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican lines, except I know we have both in good numbers.

To some extent, simply gathering together on Sunday mornings and worshipping together, sharing communion together, pot-lucking and lip-synching together challenges the increasing divisiveness in our country.

We are a somewhat politically diverse community, but we would not yet qualify as an intentional Christian community that seeks to understand and love one another across our political differences. In fact, if we are intentional about anything, it would be avoiding any conversations about our political views.

What would it look like for us to develop and practice safe ways for us to talk to each other about our deeply held beliefs, to cultivate within ourselves an ability to really listen and hear one another, affirming always God’s grace for all?

I think it is pretty clear that the division and rancor we are experiencing in this country isn’t going to disappear on Election Day, no matter who wins.

After all the votes are counted we will be left with that angrily divided Thanksgiving table portrayed by Saturday Night Live. If only Adele was enough to unite us and bring peace. But in fact the one we need to bring us together is already at the table, Jesus Christ, and we are that body of Christ and individually members of it. Let us be intentional about modeling reconciliation for a divided and hurting world. For this is the politics of Jesus.

 

The Politics of Jesus II: The Issues

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 16, 2016, the second of a four-part series, The Politics of Jesus.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Luke 17:11-19

In the summer of 2006, my family and I went back to Hawaii from seminary so I could complete required chaplaincy training at the Hawaii State Hospital. We stayed with the father of a good friend, a retired Army General, Orlando Epp, known to my daughter Abby as Grandpa Orlando. Orlando was a lovable character, one of these guys that would get started telling jokes and could go all night long, one after another with the same deadpan delivery. We spent many evenings by his pool, sipping a cold beverage, as he would rattle off his jokes. Some his favorite were “walks-into-a-bar” jokes. You know the ones:

A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Why the long face?”

 

A grasshopper walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Hey, we have a drink named after you!” The grasshopper says, “You have a drink named Ernie?”

 

Two peanuts walk into a bar. One was a salted.

 

A guy with a slab of asphalt under his arm walks into a bar and orders a beer, and another one for the road.

Those are all Grandpa Orlando jokes, I didn’t say they were good. Yesterday, when I was poking around on the internet trying to remember his jokes, I also found these:

Past, present and future walk into a bar. It was tense.

 

C, E-flat and G walk into a bar. The bartender says, sorry we don’t serve minors here.

 

A drum set walks into a bar. Ba dum tshhh

 

Last one. Jesus walks into a bar with a Samaritan and a leper, and the bartender says, “Is this a joke?” And Jesus replies, “No, it’s a parable.”

The parables Jesus told and the stories of Jesus’ life were peopled with an extraordinary cast of characters, Samaritans, lepers, demoniacs, centurions, tax collectors, rich men, and menstruating women. You’d think there was a punchline coming.

But these stories are no joke, instead they offer a critique of the dominant culture in Jesus’ day and communicate something essential about the kingdom of God.

I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first a little review, this is the second in a four-part sermon series, The Politics of Jesus.

Last week I asked, “Was Jesus political, and if so in what way?”

I began with this definition, to be political is to engage a process to order collective lives for the public good. I concluded that by this definition, Jesus was political. Just as Moses confronted Pharaoh to demand freedom for enslaved Israelites, so Jesus, the “new Moses,” was confronting a “domination system” comprised of political, religious and economic elites who sought to preserve their wealth and power at the expense of others. By claiming the authority of God to stand with those who had been pushed to the margins, Jesus confronted powerful religious and political leaders and challenged the domination system. This got him crucified.

If you missed it, both a manuscript and recording of that sermon are available on the church’s website and Facebook page.

This week is part two; I have titled this simply, The Issues. I will not take specific positions on issues, but I will try to draw some general conclusions about how the gospels inform and frame perspectives on certain categories of issues before us in this election cycle. So to tackle this let me return to that cast of characters that fills the stories of Jesus’ life and the parables he tells.

I went through the gospel of Luke to ask who and what is being talked about there. Here are just a few representative selections from what I found there.

The main character in the very first chapter is Mary, a young pregnant woman whose claim to be a virgin would have been viewed with suspicion and invited speculation of adultery. Yet her Song of Praise speaks powerfully of God bringing the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. This is most definitely political language, pointing to a reordering of collective lives.

In Chapter Four, at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus returns to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. There he references two stories from the Hebrew Bible (what is sometimes referred to as our Old Testament), one about a widow at Zarephath who saved the prophet Elijah’s life during a famine, the other featuring a Syrian General named Naaman who was healed of his leprosy by Elisha. Jesus’ point in celebrating these two as heroes is that neither is Jewish. That means that they were both a different nationality and practiced a different religion than Jesus’ Jewish listeners. Luke writes that those in the synagogue were enraged by the fact that Jesus celebrated these two pagan foreigners in this way.

Then, in Chapter 8, Jesus heals a man in Gerasene who was possessed by demons. We are told that the man was naked and lived in tombs. He would be chained up in an attempt to control him but would break his chains and be driven by the demons back into the wild. Jesus cast out the demons, restoring the man to his right mind. Gerasene was a Gentile city, the people more Greek than Semitic; this, in itself, is significant. And certainly today, we would understand this man to be mentally ill. Significantly, Jesus concludes this encounter by telling the man, “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.”

Subsequently, Jesus heals a woman who had been menstruating for 12 years. Women who were menstruating were considered to be ritually impure according to Jewish law and were separated from their community. As a result of her bleeding, this woman had been apart from her community for 12 years. By healing her body, Jesus allowed the woman to enter back into the life of her community.

Then we come to the passage I read about Jesus healing ten lepers. There are two things to notice here. Lepers too were considered to be ritually impure and were cast out of their communities. We read this in Leviticus: “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” After they are healed, Jesus tells the ten to go show themselves to the priests. By having their priests confirm that they are now clean they can be restored to their communities.

The other significant thing here is that only one of the healed lepers returns to thank Jesus, the only Samaritan. I talk about Samaritans quite a bit. They were of mixed ethnicity, having intermarried with Assyrian occupiers during the exilic period, and also practiced a form of Judaism not recognized as legitimate in Israel. Samaritans were judged harshly by Jews, yet on at least three occasions they are presented in the gospels as the heroes of a story. Here Jesus comments on the nine Jewish lepers who left, saying, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

So, let’s see what we have here.

  • A young, pregnant woman speaks on behalf of God about reordering the relationship between rich and poor.
  • Jesus begins his ministry, in a synagogue, by identifying two pagans, one a widowed single mother, as examples for people of faith.
  • Jesus heals a mentally ill pagan man and a woman who had been shunned because of her uncontrolled menstrual bleeding, restoring them to their communities.
  • And Jesus cures those with a debilitating and disfiguring disease, restoring them to their communities while also affirming the value and morality of the “foreigner” who was routinely judged for his faith and ethnicity.

All of these inform our perspective on any number of issues that are prominent in this year’s presidential campaign:

  • Respect for women’s leadership;
  • responding to poverty;
  • recognizing the morality and value of those from other faiths and nations;
  • treating the mentally ill and integrating them back into the community;
  • healthcare for the most vulnerable, specifically women’s health;
  • and confronting prejudice toward minority ethnic groups.

These stories are far from a prescription for public policy, but certainly can, and I believe should, be read as a prioritizing by Jesus of who and what is important in the realm of God. Each of these stories involves lifting up those who are laid low by circumstance, viewing positively those whom the society judges harshly, and relieving suffering. And taken together, these and many, many more similar stories in the gospels, challenge and seek to reorder a whole legal and cultural system that marginalizes some while privileging others.

Let me make one more observation about stories like these in the gospels. Certainly they feature characters that would be routinely judged by the law and culture of the day as less-than. And many of these stories also emphasize the role that restoring someone back to health plays in restoring them to their community. And so it is today. This is why debates about accessible healthcare are so important.

In two weeks, after Rev Kev gets a crack at The Politics of Jesus, I will return to look at the relationship between our faith and civic responsibility. What is our appropriate response, what is our government’s role in responding to the politics of Jesus?

A Muslim, Christian and Jew walk into a bar followed by an immigrant from Mexico and a refugee from Syria. They are joined by men and women, gay and straight, and people with a range of physical and mental abilities. African-Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders enter with people of European ancestry. “Is this a joke?” asks the bartender. Everyone lifts their glass and responds as one, “No! We are the kingdom of God!”

Amen.

Note: Before the Benediction I offered these words: “In our tradition the sermon is not intended to be the last word on a subject, but rather an invitation into a conversation. I invite your thoughts on the p0litics of Jesus, however I present this challenge. We are a church, a “people of the Book.” So try to frame your response in the context of your faith. I recognize that you are not all authorities on the Bible, but you can still speak to what you believe about God and Jesus and how this informs your worldview and political perspective.”

The Politics of Jesus, Part I: Was He?

This is the first of a four-part sermon series, “The Politics of Jesus,” preached on October 9, 2016 at First Church in Simsbury, Connecticut.

Exodus 6:28 – 7:6

Luke 4:16-21

This morning’s topic is, “Was Jesus political, and if so, how?”

But before we wade into those questions together, I think three observations are in order.

First, why preach a sermon series about the politics of Jesus, if there is such a thing? Well, I think it is fair to say that this year’s presidential election has been like no other. It consumes headlines, fills social media feeds, and dominates conversations at water coolers and dinner tables alike. We are a people of faith who seek to follow Jesus. When the election seems to be turning our world upside down, God, through Jesus Christ, should, we would hope, be able to provide a center and help us gain some perspective.

Second, I know for myself, and I have heard from many people, that this election is creating a palatable anxiety and worry. In particular the conflict that arises between people with different viewpoints is very stressful for many. Kevin and I will seek to balance our roles as teachers and pastors. I will endeavor to speak the truth of the gospel as best I understand it, while staying grounded in God’s grace and love for all people.

And third, someone asked a fair question, I thought churches aren’t allowed to engage in politics or risk losing their non-profit status. I have looked this up. The IRS Statute on Charities, Churches and Politics is very clear, churches are forbidden from participating on political campaigns on behalf of particular candidates. I can assure you that neither Kevin nor I will promote a particular candidate. You may feel drawn to one candidate or another as a result of what we share, but those connections and conclusions are entirely yours to make. Our purpose is not to sway a vote for one candidate or another but to provide a framework for thinking about these things.

So, was Jesus political?

The answer depends of course on what we mean by political.

Politics has come to be associated with government. In particular, in our American form of Democracy, we associate politics with elections for candidates to public office.

And we know that in Jesus’ day, Israel and its capitol Jerusalem were nothing like an American democracy. Israel was part of the Roman Empire, so was expected to be loyal to Emperor Augustus and his representative in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate. A Jewish king, Herod, was appointed by Rome to rule over Galilee. And a Council of religious leaders, also loyal to Rome, was responsible for the religious life of Jerusalem. So there is no way Jesus was political in any American Democratic sense.

That said, I have a Master’s Degree in Political Science from the University of Hawaii, and through that work came to understand politics more broadly than just elections and government. In fact, looking for a good definition of politics for this morning, I contacted my favorite PoliSci professor, Kathy Ferguson, and she shared this: Politics is the process of organizing our collective lives. Politics is a process, ongoing not static. Politics requires organizing which can involve both cooperation and conflict. And politics is about our collective lives, not about the individual, but concerned with the public good. Power is also integral to politics, and power makes people do what they would otherwise not do, or enables people to do what they otherwise could not do.

I included the Exodus passage as an example of this definition of politics; Moses entered into a process identified by God to reorder the collective lives of his people, and he wielded the power of God to make Pharaoh do what he otherwise would not, and to enable the Israelites to do what they otherwise could not.

So this is the definition of politics I will use when asking, was Jesus political, did he seek to influence the process of organizing lives for the public good?

So let’s turn to Jesus.

There are various ways of understanding the meaning of Jesus’s life and ministry and these are not mutually exclusive.

One popular understanding of Jesus is as the arbiter of individual salvation. This is communicated in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Another way of understanding Jesus is as the good shepherd who has come to seek us out and bring us back when we are lost, to serve as a source of comfort and strength in times of trial.

Or Jesus may be seen as a teacher and example of a way to live a better, kinder life. For example, in the fifth chapter of Matthew we find Jesus teachings his followers about forgiveness and love for our enemies. Many work to follow these and other teachings so as to be better, happier people.

Notice that each of these understandings focuses on the individual, each is private and apolitical. None of these understandings of Jesus is about organizing our collective lives for the common good. I affirm each of these perspectives and believe all are important to our faith.

So, I ask again, was Jesus political?

I have mentioned that Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh meets my Professor Kathy Ferguson’s definition of political. Many Bible scholars note that Jesus is presented in the gospels, especially the gospel of Matthew, as the “new Moses.” There are a number of intriguing parallels between the stories of Moses and Jesus, but the most significant is that Moses went up the mountain to receive the law, and Jesus delivered the “new law” in the Sermon on the Mount. So, if Moses used the power of God to liberate his people, how might Jesus also be seeking to reorder lives for the common good?

One of the most prominent contemporary Bible scholars, Marcus Borg (who just died a couple years ago), identified what he called a “domination system” which operated throughout the Roman Empire, and in Jerusalem in particular. The domination system consisted of the Roman Empire’s political and military might, coupled with the religious power of the temple authorities. The chief priests, the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes supported the Roman Empire so they could retain their power and continue to collect temple taxes. In addition to political and religious power, the economic system preserved the wealth and land holdings of a very few. So all three of these, political, religious and economic systems, functioned together to benefit a small number of elite while oppressing and excluding everyone else.

So, whereas Moses liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, Jesus, suggests Borg, worked to liberate those kept down and excluded by the domination system.

Jesus entered into a process identified by God to reorder the collective lives of these people, and he wielded the power of God to make the chief priests, Herod and Pilate do what they otherwise would not, and to enable those on the margins of the domination system to do what they otherwise could not do.

But unlike Moses, Jesus didn’t do this by demanding freedom, he did it by going among those who had been cast out (lepers, demoniacs, the blind), healing them, and restoring them to the community. In addition to being individual, private acts of mercy, these were public, political acts; and the reordering of collective lives these acts promoted threatened the domination system. This is why we find Jesus being confronted by the religious authorities again and again. In Chapter 12 of Matthew the Pharisees seek to undermine Jesus’ authority, delegitimize his power by claiming that Jesus casts our demons by the power of Beelzebub. And in Chapter 21 of Matthew the chief priests challenge Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?”

The Roman Emperor Julius Cesar was deified, given the title of The Divine Julius. His son, Augustus, who ruled during Jesus lifetime, was then identified as the Son of God. So reference to Jesus as the Son of God were a direct challenge to Rome and the existing system of political, religious and economic power.

So yes, faith in Jesus Christ offers eternal life to those who believe. And yes, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, seeking us out and returning us home when we are lost, offering comfort and strength in times of trial. And yes, Jesus’ teachings and example can help us be better, kinder people. But these are not what got Jesus killed by Roman and temple authorities. Jesus was killed because he was political, because he sought to reorder collective lives for a public good in a way that threatened the existing domination system.

The domination system still exists, and Jesus still poses a threat to those who benefit from it politically, religiously and economically. This is why it is beneficial for some to interpret Christianity as only a private, personal, apolitical faith.

Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and author of the book, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity. In an Miroslav Volf Interview on Wednesday Volf said:

“The Christian faith is one single faith that we encounter in myriad of forms. By “public faith” we don’t mean some special kind of faith, but we refer to the public dimension of that one faith. It is faith as it concerns common goods. There are circles of these common goods: from the roads and water pipes that run by our houses, through elementary schools all the way to a nation’s monetary policy and international relations. Since Christians believe in the God who created and is redeeming all things, Christian faith is concerned with all these common goods. We should not forget that there is no clear demarcating line between common goods and personal good, between public faith and private faith. My desires are intimate things, but they, too, concern the common good and are of public import.”

So yes, Jesus was political, and our faith today has a public, political dimension. Let us think carefully and engage wisely knowing that God created and is redeeming all things. Amen.

 

 

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